Roses in Manhattan – 9/11 six years later

By Michael Humphrey

Last month I traveled to New York for the first time. As part of the trip, I wanted to see the location of an atrocity that will mark our lives forever. So early one Friday morning, my wife and I took the train to where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Despite having no expectations, I was surprised where my mind took me when I got there.

Looking into the massive crater, now a construction zone, I was strangely reminded of the area where six Jesuits and two housekeepers were killed in the night at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Even more oddly, I found myself comparing two atrocities all these years later. Not the acts themselves, but the symbols left behind.

The contrasts were enormous. The plans for reconstruction at WTC are monumental, a twisting spire rising 1776 feet high. The memorial to the victims is far subtler and, it appears, will be beautiful. But it was the tower itself that struck me. Some say it’s a triumphant statement to the world that we are stronger than ever. Others say it is proof that we’ve learned little, if anything, about what makes us safe.

At UCA, rose bushes mark the site of the atrocities, a simple and loving tribute to those who died needlessly that November night in 1989. It’s hard to find a critic for this – the gardener who lost his wife and daughter that night planted them.

I thought to myself, the tower represents the concept that power brings peace – “we’ll get tougher and come get you so that you can’t attack us again.” The roses represent grace and humility in the face of loss – “this is what we’ve lost here on earth, but life has risen again.”

We Americans have attacked those responsible for the attacks and thousands more, writing the postscript of 9/11 with the language of war. The Jesuits have publicly forgiven the attackers of their brothers, but also demanded the truth be known, writing the final chapter with the language of justice.

I was ready to continue this exercise when my wife and I decided to go into a nearby building to find a light breakfast. People bustled out of the subway station, stoically herding themselves to their offices. And suddenly my comparing stopped. Now I wanted to know who among this crowd was here that fateful day. I wanted to know those stories, their memories of that day, their losses and lessons.

It was as if the murdered Jesuits and housekeepers arrived to guide me, to steer me towards the humanity that surrounded us. These very people could have been the dead. So I looked at them. I suppose many of them were top-flight business executives who make more in one day than I will all year. Others were probably support staff, maintenance staff, administrative assistants, on and on. Look at them, those martyred souls of San Salvador instructed, these are more than symbols.

They are neighbors. The living roses in the lawn.

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